On the morning of 10 January 1928, Harry Pace—a quarryman and shepherd—died after a long, painful and mysterious illness. Harry died in ‘Rose Cottage’, the house he shared with his wife Beatrice and their five children in Fetter Hill (near Coleford), a quiet rural hamlet in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.
Although Harry’s doctor at first certified a ‘natural’ death, a post-mortem conducted at the behest of the dead man’s suspicious family revealed that he had, in fact, died from a large dose of arsenic. Dark whisperings began to circulate in the scattered farms and villages of the Forest of Dean about hidden wealth, illicit lovers and threats of murder. This revelation brought not only fleet-street journalists but also Scotland Yard detectives to the Forest, and a lengthy inquest followed. Although it could not conclusively determine how the arsenic had found its way into his body, the inquest jury, in a controversial decision, charged Beatrice with Harry's murder.
However, although a suspect, she was treated in the press and by the public as a victim: charged with a murder that might have led her to the gallows, she became widely referred to as ‘the tragic widow’. (It was the Sunday Express, which bought her ‘life-story’ for a substantial sum, which labelled her ‘the most remarkable woman in England.’) She was undoubtedly a tragic figure: at the age of 38, only five of her ten children had survived infancy. Inquest and trial testimony suggested that the young widow’s marriage had been a vicious ‘martyrdom’. Abused by her husband and then impoverished by his death, she was then—as some saw it—unjustly hounded by the state. The press consistently idealised Beatrice as a doting wife and caring mother, and she was also the object of an unprecedented outpouring of public generosity. The legal defence fund established by her socialist MP quickly filled up with donations large and small sent from all parts of Britain.
Beatrice was more than a figure of public curiosity, and her case caused no small amount of political debate. Questions were raised in Parliament about ‘third-degree’ interrogations, overbearing coroners and the lack of legal aid to poor defendants. This cause célèbre in the wake of an obscure farmer’s death thus fed a heated contemporary debate about civil liberties that still resonates today. Much like Beatrice herself, this chapter in the British debate about the limits of state power has been unjustly neglected: at the time, the Conservative government—and Scotland Yard—weathered a series of sensational scandals that year that raised questions about the relationship between police and public. Beatrice’s story both fed and fed upon such concerns.
In bringing the drama of the Pace case to life, The Most Remarkable Woman in England considers important historical topics: the relationship between press and public, the role of the police and the media’s presentation of (possibly) criminal women. It demonstrates that serious scholarship and vivid storytelling need not be mutually exclusive.
The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace will be published by Manchester University Press in the UK on 31 August 2012 and in North America on 2 October.